The process of digestion is an incredibly complex and sophisticated one. Your stomach is designed to break down food physically — by churning it — and enzymatically, with the right quantities and quality of digestive enzymes. One of the key players in this process is hydrochloric acid, which aids in bathing and disinfecting the stomach; killing parasites and bacteria; activating pepsin, an enzyme that begins the breakdown of proteins; and stimulating gastrin, a hormone that causes the release of gastric acid.
Hypochlorhydria is the medical term used to describe the issue of low stomach acid. People who suffer from this will often experience digestive distress due to an improper breakdown of nutrients — which can eventually result in a potential nutrient deficiency.
Why should you care? Low stomach acid and undigested food particles provide the perfect living and feeding ground for bad bacteria (such as H. pylori), yeast, and fungi. This can cause further damage by irritating the gut lining and producing toxins that have to be filtered by the liver.
Signs and Symptoms to Look Out For
Ironically, the symptoms of low stomach acid are often misinterpreted as symptoms of too much stomach acid, the latter of which is far less common. Symptoms of low stomach acid include:
- Acid reflux/heartburn
- Intestinal infections
- Weak fingernails
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Brittle nails
- Autoimmune diseases (in extreme cases)
If you suffer from any of the symptoms associated with low stomach acid/hypochlorhydria, it’s wise to do some further investigating to get to the root cause of this. Stomach acid is a critical factor in digestion – one that’s often overlooked yet could be at the root of many people’s digestive issues.
Potential Causes of Hypochlorhydria
These are some of the most common causes of low stomach acid:
- Aging: As we age, we experience a change in our stomach acid. Ironically, it’s often older people who are misdiagnosed with having too much stomach acid and are given acid reflux medications.
- Chronic stress: When you’re stressed out, your body sends blood away from the digestive system to the parts of your body that are required in fight or flight mode. This state is not conducive to proper digestion.
- Long-term use of acid reflux or heartburn medications: These medications inhibit the production of stomach acid, which can cause hypochlorhydria.
- H. pylori infection: This bacteria suppresses the production of stomach acid.
- Zinc deficiency: Zinc is required by the body in order to produce enough stomach acid.
- Processed foods: These foods increase inflammation, feed bad bacteria, and contribute to nutrient deficiencies.
How to Test for Low Stomach Acid
The following tests will help you determine whether or not you have low levels of stomach acid.
The Heidelberg Stomach Acid Test: This test involves swallowing a small capsule, which contains a radio transmitter, that then records the pH of your stomach. It’s the most accurate — and most costly — test available.
The Betaine HCL Challenge: Each low stomach acid case is different. This means different people will have a more or less extreme deficiency of hydrochloric acid (HCL). This test involves buying some HCL tablets, consuming them with a protein-rich meal, and paying attention to your stomach’s reaction to the supplement. A warming sensation will indicate a sufficient amount of acid. The number of supplements you take to feel this warming will indicate whether or not you have a deficiency.
Although this is a home test, it’s not recommended unless approved by a healthcare practitioner. This is because the use of pain medications, corticosteroids, and anti-inflammatories can alter the quality of your stomach lining, making it susceptible to HCL supplementation damage. Stomach ulcers and other infections (such as H. pylori) also affect the lining, making this test potentially unsuitable.
The Baking Soda Test: This involves drinking a quarter teaspoon of baking soda with 150ml of water first thing in the morning. The strong HCL in your stomach will chemically react with the alkaline baking soda and create gas that will, in turn, cause you to burp.
If you don’t burp within five minutes, it’s likely your stomach acid levels are low. However, bear in mind that there are other variables that may affect the outcome. This is just a simple DIY test that can provide some indication before you invest in a more nuanced diagnosis.
Treating Hypochlorhydria: Some Beginner Steps
As with any corrective protocol, the first thing to do is to establish the underlying cause of the problem. Once this is addressed, you will start to see improvements in your digestion. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Test for H. pylori and treat accordingly. There are natural alternatives to antibiotics.
- Chew your food. Chewing breaks down food both physically and enzymatically with salivary amylase. This makes it easier to digest once it’s in the stomach.
- Manage stress. Make sure you only eat in a relaxed state.
- Drink lemon juice or apple cider vinegar ten to 20 minutes before a meal. This increases your stomach’s acidity naturally.
- Avoid drinking a lot of water with meals. This would dilute stomach acid.
- Avoid processed foods. Many processed foods are nutritionally empty and can deplete the nutrients needed to make HCL.
- Supplement with betaine HCL. Do this only if prescribed by a healthcare practitioner.
Michelle Christine Harvey is a Nutritional Therapy Consultant focusing on non-restrictive, whole-food, and nutrient-dense eating. Her experience working in different restaurants around the world has given her the necessary tools to make healthy food that is uncompromisingly delicious. She combines her nutritional and culinary training to guide people on their bio-individual paths to overall wellness.